Glasgow South Side, 1893: The Glasgow Boys
29-year old Edward Hornel blinks in disbelief. He looks at his friend and fellow artist George Henry. Tea from a china cup in the grand drawing room of shipping magnet William Burrell? What a heck of a journey their paintings had brought them on.
George grins at his friend, wishing he’d changed his paint covered smalls. He can’t believe it either. Japan? Geishas, colour, wonderment. A thousand miles from the drunk, smog-filled studio beside the Clyde. Literally. An 18-month, all-expenses paid painting tour of Japan.
“Boys,” William Burrell stands and paces the room, his passion and excitement getting the better of him. “Boys, you have taken the art world by storm.”
His arms wave like a windmill as he points at Hornel’s painting ‘Cottager’s Garden.’
“The energy, colour, movement in your work. The freedom of expression. My God Boy, the Cabbages. Bloody magnificent things. No-one has seen anything like it. To gaze on your cabbages is to feel alive.
He sighs deeply and closes his eyes, a sensual reverie triggered by the art. He smiles and speaks in whisper, as if imparting a new secret.
“One in the eye for the Gluepot Edinburgh-stiffs of the Royal Scottish Academy, eh? A boldness, a sense of light that’s beyond Parisienne Impressionism. You Glasgow Boys have truly upset them. THAT’S why I love you. Your talent, my patronage, a shared hunger for life.”
A match made in a perfectly painted Glasgow Heaven.
The blatant sparring and competition that defines Glasgow and Edinburgh precedes and outranks all other long-standing urban rivalries: New York and Boston; Sydney and Melbourne; Toronto and Vancouver. An Oxford and Cambridge spar is just friendly jousting between rival universities.
Only 40 miles and a 45-minute train journey separates Glasgow and Edinburgh. Yet they look, feel and sound remarkably different. Each defined by social history. Edinburgh clings to its relics and status, its Georgian architecture and intellectual accomplishments. Glasgow has a groundswell of energy, big heartedness and a history of painful and momentous transformation (from heavy industry to iconic modern buildings). Their hearts as different as if spawned from opposing entities. Each has its own accent, climate, municipal government, sports teams, universities, newspapers and sense of direction.
The earliest documented spat occurs in 1656 over a loaf of bread.
The good folks of Edinburgh favour ‘pan’ loaves which are cooked in tins with an all-round golden crust. They are more expensive than the Glasgow favoured ‘plain breid’. Plain loaves have a dark, well-fired crust on the top and bottom, but no crust on the sides due to the bread being stuck together in batches.
‘Twa honest men fae Embra’ think they can offer Glaswegians a higher standard of bread. A crumby sleight on a perfectly palatable piece.
To this day, Edinburgh residents are stereotyped as ‘Pan-Loafy’ or posh, pretentious and stuck up.
The Glasgow Herald newspaper is founded in 1783, the same year as the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, when the city is rethinking its commercial strategy in the wake of the American War of Independence.
Edinburgh identifies as a European capital, rather than looking West to her noisy, uncouth neighbour. Edinburgh’s Scotsman newspaper is first published on Burns Night 1817. Articles are full of Edinburgh’s superior culture. She deliberately refers to Glasgow just once in a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ footnote. Edinburgh brands herself the ‘Athens of the North.’ The National Museum of Scotland, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Edinburgh all help to reinforce her national significance, but perhaps stymie transformation by rooting identity in the bygone era of Enlightenment.
To go even further back in history (1603), Edinburgh loses her royal court to London when King James VI (son of the executed Mary Queen of Scots) moves south to govern a Monarchical Union between Scotland and England. The Parliamentary Union follows in 1707, meaning the loss of the Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament. Edinburgh is robbed of the things that make her the capital in the first place. Still she clings to her superiority and status like a vampire to darkness. Wearing the proverbial coat wi nae knickers whilst scoffing her pan loaf.
Meanwhile the opportunities afforded by a London-ruled United Kingdom mean that other cities, most notably our under-dog Glasgow, can grow their trade. Commerce and banking. Tobacco, cotton, sugar, shipping, money, fortune and lavish buildings. With growing commercial clout comes a groundswell of civic pride. Glasgow, like the irrepressible, salacious devil he is, is waking up and he is energised.
Eighteenth century spy and novelist Daniel Defoe is impressed not just by the industry of Glasgow merchants, but also describes the city as ‘the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain.’
The origin of the name Glasgow is thought to come from ‘Brythonic’ (a language related to Welsh and the earliest recorded language spoken in and around Glasgow), Glasgu meaning ‘beloved family’ a reference to Saint Kentigern’s church. Another popular derivation is from Gaelic, Glaschu meaning ‘green hollow’ or as still called today, coined by Defoe, ‘our (dear) green place.’.
In the late nineteenth century, the conservative artists of the Edinburgh-based Royal Scottish Academy, known for their scorn of painters unwilling to work in the capital, are challenged by a group of ambitious, unapologetic young ‘Glasgow Boys.’ These originators of Scottish Modernism achieve international success and are described as ‘making art history,’ exhibiting in cities ranging from Munich and Paris to St Louis and Philadelphia. Their work seems closer to Impressionism than the much more conventional and turgid pictures associated with Edinburgh’s Royal Scottish Academy.
‘Glasgow Girl,’ and designer Margaret Macdonald marries the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and their iconic designs put Glasgow firmly on the map. The Glasgow School of Art is born and the West develops its art independently of the Academy’s power to fetter or blight.
Similarly, Glasgow develops its own take on writing, with Glasgow literature winning most of the artistic plaudits in recent decades. And music. Glasgow is designated a UNESCO City of Music in 2008.
Glasgow’s story is of the generosity of spirit, energy and innovation that comes from a shared endurance of adverse urban predicaments.
There is no doubt, he is still reeling from the loss of heavy industry and by social problems so persistent, you might wonder why anyone would choose to visit Glasgow over his snooty Eastern rival.
Glasgow has significantly higher murder rates, more acute addiction problems, lower life expectancy, higher unemployment and the world’s highest obesity rate (we’re pure dead brilliant, but pure dead fat). Yet for all its social inequality, he has a charm, friendliness and unsquashable protean energy that genuinely does make Glasgow Smiles Better (ref the ubiquitous Mr Happy advertising logo from 1983 – who still lurks about the city grinning at tourists).
An article on the awesomeness of Glasgow cannot be finished any more fittingly than with some words from that other awesome, big-hearted ‘Glasgow Boy’ Billy Connolly. Originally aired by BBC Scotland in 2019. ENJOY!
For more information on William Burrell and the phenomenal Burrell Collection: https://burrellcollection.com/
For more information on the life and works of ‘Glasgow Boy,’ Edward Hornel: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/broughton-house
For more information on beginning of Scottish Modernism and the Glasgow Boys, a radical group of young painters united by their disillusionment with academic painting: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/features/glasgow-boys